HYDERABAD: The fate of ‘Podu’ or shifting cultivation in land belonging to the forest department continues to be on the boil in Telangana, particularly with repeated promises by the state government that it would solve the issue, once and for all.
At last count, in the middle of 2020, as many as 15,558 claims on 53,566 acres of forest land under Podu by tribals were pending with the state government.
That apart, another 3.27 lakh acres of forest land are under illegal occupation, thanks to those who filed 91,942 claims for Podu rights never being informed that their applications were rejected. This takes nearly four lakh acres, the forest land that is currently under illegal occupation in the state.
Technically, forest land occupied by people can no longer be transferred to private individuals following the implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Dwellers (Record of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. But communities that have occupied forest land in anticipation of becoming owners of the land are being slowly legitimized by local administrations that are providing roads, power and water supplies, making it impossible to remove such illegal occupations.
Meanwhile, repeated promises by several ruling TRS leaders that Podu land rights issues will be ‘solved’, and demands from leaders from other parties that those lands be given to the tribals, has reportedly resulted in further encroachments on forest land in several districts. The start of the monsoon has led to a fresh bout of encroachments in several districts, it is learnt.
Field-level officials of the forest department say they are under enormous pressure from local politicians, including MLAs and ministers, not to evict such illegal occupants.
It also learnt that the one foolproof method of protecting forest land, digging of trenches by the forest department along forest land boundaries, has come to a halt following off-the-record oral instructions to stop the activity. The trenches are primarily designed to prevent tractors, bullock carts or cattle from crossing the forest boundaries.
Reportedly a lot of frustration prevails among officials, and field-level staff tasked with protecting the forests. Several admit in private that they are being asked to turn a blind eye to forest encroachments and instead focus on planting saplings under Haritha Haram.
This tree plantation drive by the state government while adding to the number of trees in the state, does precious little for forest cover as general tree cover is distinctly different from forest cover, the latter capable of sustaining entire ecosystems including wild animals.
Officials say that while Haritha Haram is good, the sad part was that they are tasked to protect one or one-and-year-old saplings that are mostly planted outside of forest areas, while having to watch silently when trees that are 20 years or older are cut with impunity by timber smugglers in forests.